Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Lessons from a blue fish




I cry at the movies. I sob, in fact. I am not one of those quiet criers or those people who pretend they have something in their eye; I cry outright. Usually it's the tender moments, the death of a relative, or a dog dying, or the breakup after a long romance. The usual stuff.
So imagine my surprise, as well as my toddlers', when I started sobbing in the middle of 'Finding Nemo'. And not at the beginning when the eggs all get eaten along with their mother, but right in the middle, when Dory yells out to Marlin to 'just let go'.

Allow me to elaborate.                           

I was brought up in a strict South American household. My father was the head of the family, and the boss of us all. His word was law, and unfortunately he was an extremely anxious man who believed that the world would do us great harm, and kill us. If we stepped out the door, we would die.
So I grew up believing that. I never went to any school excursions, or camps, or parties. I had one friend who lived across the road, and the only reason I ever saw him was that he would ride his bike to my house.
i did however go to one school excursion. Within minutes of arriving, I went exploring with my friend down to the creek, and my 7 year old little sister followed. Sandra was obviously much more experienced than me at climbing anything or balancing, or walking on level ground. So she balanced her way across the creek on a large wooden plank that had been placed across it. Above it, hung a thin guide-wire. I followed, and managed to get to the other side with great difficulty.
Then my little sister followed. There was a gap of about 2 metres to the creek bed. There was not much water, but there were large river rocks.
Before I had a chance to tell her that I would come to help her, she had already stepped onto the plank, lost her balance, and fell heavily on her back, as she tried to hold on to the wire and it snapped.
Her head hit a large river rock, and she started crying. I slid down the river bank, and helped her up, dusted her off and consoled her. And told her that under no circumstances was she to tell on me. I knew I'd be in trouble.
Within metres of where all the adults were congregated (this being the only reason I was allowed to go on the excursion, the presence of parents), Tati started to cry. Dad demanded to know what had happened, and as I was 4 years older than her, I was responsible for her welfare, and therefore bore the brunt of the disaster. The 45 minute drive home was punctuated by yelling, guilt and being told that my sister 'could have died'. 'What were you thinking? How could you? You irresponsible, useless...etc'. Thus ended my first and only experience of a school excursion.

When I had children, I was exquisitely aware of the difficulties that never being allowed to do anything creates in a person. I knew that I needed to make different parenting decisions for my children, and this involved the 'Letting go' exercise.
My daughter was in kindy, and I knew that later in the term, a bus excursion was planned to the museum. My instinctive brain was telling me that she would die. Plain and simple. There were no degrees, just certain death. And it would be my fault for giving permission.
I had already learnt that children sometimes need to fall over in order to realise that they will get hurt, and that natural consequences are the best teacher. But I didn't see the need to see her die simply to show her that excursions kill.

And then Dory stepped in. My hero.
'Let go!' She said.
And Marlin answered that how did she know that nothing bad would happen.
'If you never let go, you will never have anything at all happen'.
Followed by sobbing.
I realised that by depriving my children of experiences, I was not allowing anything at all to happen to them. For them to experience joy, and achievement, and all the good things that life brings, they needed to do things.

However, for someone with such deeply ingrained guilt and anxiety, “letting go” was not a passive act. I wouldn't just open my hand and allow my child to drift away. For me, the act of letting go was that of prying my fingers away from their grasp one by one, telling myself that nothing would happen. Their teachers actually cared for my child's welfare, the likelihood of anything happening was infitessimal, the opportunities for growth were endless (mainly for me); and finally, if they did die, it would be a tragedy, but it shouldn't change my decision to allow them to experience the world.

I stood at the bus with the other parents on excursion day, my heart pounding in my mouth as I told my daughter that she would have a fantastic time and how exciting her day would be. I smiled as the bus pulled out and waved enthusiastically as she waved back. And when she was out of sight, I bawled my eyes out and told myself that this was the right thing to do as a parent, that I would be ok.

And I was. The opportunities to “let go” multiply as children get older. The first day of school, the first time they have to do a test and fail, the first time they have to tackle a problem on their own. Recently my daughter started University. She asked me if I could come with her to 'O week', the orientation week. My instinctive brain pounced at the chance. My mother's voice laughed: “Sure, except you'd be the only person in the whole University to bring their mummy with them. I don't mind, but you might get a bit embarrassed. I'll be right on the other end of the phone if you need anything”.

And she went, she thrived, she conquered. She grew. She experienced.

I survived.

This has been one of the most important lessons I have needed to learn as a parent. My children know now that I am a “worry wort”, and they make fun of me, and reassure me. But I pride myself in never depriving them of life experiences. They have grown up well rounded and aware. And really, really brave. I have even noticed that the process of letting go has become more automatic, and more passive.

Allow your children to spread their wings, it's good for you. And if you haven't seen the film, do!


Monday, 23 July 2018

An uncomfortable story I am comfortable with


Today I am going to tell you a story.
It begins on the summer of 2001, with a 16 day heat wave. The thermometer soared above 26 degrees day and night, and I groaned as I turned on a mattress plopped in the middle of our lounge room, the only room where there was air conditioning. 36 weeks pregnant, and having just finished work, I prepared for another 4 weeks of pregnancy, as this was my second. The first had been induced at 41 +weeks. I didn’t think I would deliver any time soon.
Our child would be called Amy Laura. At the 20 week ultrasound, we were told that there was 80% certainty that the baby was a girl. They weren’t sure, as she was coy and hid from the ultrasound probe, rolling away from it as they chased to find out just what gender she was. Because of the uncertainty, we had the reserve name of Daniel; just in case.
I started having regular 10 minutely contractions a week later, and because I didn’t trust my body to be ready, I put myself to bed with pain relief and a sleeping tablet; only to be rudely interrupted by a popping sensation and my waters all over the bed and the bedroom carpet as I stood up in shock.
37 weeks pregnant, and she was good to go.
The labour was quick after that, and at 6.33am, my beautiful daughter was born, screaming angrily and with a mop of jet black hair. She was handed to her father and I asked: “Is she still a girl?” as I quickly checked her genitalia. And she was, as far as I was concerned, another little girl for us. A perfect little girl.
She was vigorous, and seemed to know what she wanted. She screamed for a feed and after being fed, screamed for another 30 minutes later and then slept for 12 hours.
She was a quiet baby, who didn’t smile until 3 months at people. She would lie quietly watching her teddies on her mobile go round and round. She smiled at her sister, but when I tried to make her smile by making silly sounds and making faces, she would look at me critically, as if to say that I was ill qualified to be called her parent. She had a tiny face. Her eyes, mouth and nose were really close together, and her little lips were full and heart shaped. She was hairy all over, and her eyes were as dark as I remember my sister’s being- like two shiny olives staring out at me. She was an angel.
Despite my concerns, my love for her did not take any away from her sister, who was a 20 month toddler at the time, and very confused, as well as happy to have a little sister.
I changed nappies for months in a row, I didn’t sleep a wink for many years, but watching those two little peas in a pod growing up has been the most enriching experience in my life. I have learnt about love, tolerance, and most of all, myself.
Amy was a very different child from her sister Phoebe. She was easy going. A polar opposite to her sister’s intensity and fire. She would let go of a toy even when she was a baby and barely sitting up, just so her sister would stop having a tantrum. She was so easy going, that she didn’t even swallow properly until she was about 3 years old, and was constantly choking, and had to be watched like a hawk.
She was always very serious when exploring her world, and it soon became very obvious to me and her father that she was a very old soul, a complex human. Opinionated, but quietly expressive. And adorably affectionate. A lover of cuddles and kisses, and always carrying around her frayed “cocoon”, a cotton rug that she would rub on her face and take to bed.
And she was funny. Almost as soon as she could talk, she would make funny faces and be a bit of a clown. In primary school, she started drawing and adding cartoons to the margins of her work. And the witty phrases would make me and all her teachers laugh.
She was a defender of the weak, and got in trouble numerous times for pushing kids over who were looking through someone else’s backpack, or who were teasing others. She was not afraid to punch first, and ask questions later. This I could never understand, for there was no such thing as physical punishment in our household. She had a few friends, but struggled at times with limits. She had opinions, and when someone had different ideas as to how things should go, she would simply cross her arms and refuse to do as she was told. I didn’t want to break that spark. It seemed to me that that determination would serve her well as she grew older.
She loved Spiderman, and so I bought Spiderman toys. She loved Sylvanian families, so I bought them too. Phoebe and Amy played beautifully for hours, usually with the dolls’ house.
Amy was always reserved, and didn’t take many risks. Unlike Phoebe, who was up a tree if there was one around, and in the water if there was water around. More nervous, she would stand back and watch her sister first. She was a sweet child who when asked if she wanted to choose a sideshow game at the Adelaide Show, chose the bobbing ducks instead of Phoebe’s roller coaster, and cried when she saw her sister on it in case she got very scared.
So to try to help her become braver, and to help Phoebe take safer risks, they joined Cubs, and later Scouts.
They both thrived in that environment. There was never an expectation in our household that they would behave in any specific way nor wear “good clothes”. My children grew up making choices about themselves and encouraged to have opinions. As long as the core rules of the household (no hitting, no name calling, take care of your property, no back chatting) were adhered to, the rest was negotiable.
So, Amy bought her clothes from the boy’s section most of the time, because she wanted to wear camo patterns, and black, and skulls, and marvel characters. And as soon as she was old enough, she was in charge of her own hair styles. When she would buck at authority, I taught her about “small acts of rebellion”. My kind of rebellion, the wearing of odd earrings, or a symbol around her neck. And yet still conform to society’s rules in the knowledge that your own opinions and morals are being upheld in private.
When she went to High school, I sensed a major change. Not just the normal teen behaviours that we all encounter, but a darkness and unhappiness that seemed beyond the norm. When she started going through puberty, she seemed to struggle with it a lot more than her sister had. I used the same parenting methods on her, we talked about being a woman, and the changes she was experiencing, and periods. Unlike Phoebe, she didn’t read the books I gave her, and in the end I discovered that the best outlet for her was art, and music. So I encouraged that. She played the clarinet and spent hours drawing caricatures and characters, and monsters.
And yet, that did not seem enough. By the time she was 13, she started cutting. At first, it was superficial. I had seen a scratch on her wrist when she was still in primary school, but she insisted that the cat was responsible and that it was not self- inflicted.
But as the wounds multiplied, so did my concern. The cuts got deeper and started to leave scars. She would not talk about why she was doing it, so I took her to see a therapist. We went through 2 or 3 before we found one she felt comfortable talking to. And then at about 14, started medication for depression. She seemed anxious, and she would buck at authority more than usual. Her rebellions got more insistent, and she would refuse to take any sports gear to school, started refusing to go to school, and missed 30 or 40 days of school in Year 9. I had heard that Year 9 was the most difficult year for teens, and so I assumed this was her digging her heels in, becoming an adult.
It seemed rather a bumpy ride, however. She seemed much better when she was on school holidays, and her mood would improve a lot, but then darken again when she was back at school. Her hair was undercut at that stage, and very short. A boy’s haircut, and teasing was inevitable when she was the only girl with short hair, let alone that short. ‘Tranny’ and ‘Lezzo’ were names she heard on a daily basis. When I offered to go and speak to the school, she told me that she had sorted it out and that it had stopped.
Then in July of her year 9 year, a friend of hers took her own life.
Her moods got darker, and I feared for my Amy’s life. I was scared that she would take her own life too, that the deep cuts were rehearsals. I worried, and blamed myself. ‘What am I doing wrong?’ ‘What else can I do?’ ‘Was it the divorce?’ ‘Does she need a male role model in her life?’
The children decided that they wanted to spend more time with their dad at that stage, and after 9 years of near full time sole parenting, I welcomed some time to myself, but worried that this wouldn’t help at all, just make them feel less secure. But the arrangements were made for them to have a week-about arrangement from then on.
Then, in December, 6 months after not cutting at all, a deep gash decorated Amy’s left arm and needed to be bandaged, as it bled a lot, and by the time I discovered it, it was starting to heal, but probably could have done with some sutures.
Defeated, I sat on her bed and cried. I confessed I didn’t know what else to do. That I was only human, and that I didn’t know what else to do to stop her hurting herself. I begged for her to tell me what was wrong. Why the school refusal, and the darkness, and the pain. Could she just tell me so that I could help her.  For the first time in a long time, I suspected there was something else she wasn’t telling me.  There was something that had been going around in my head for a while, but that I did not wish to voice, because I didn’t want to put new thoughts into her head. Maybe I didn’t want it to be real. She cried as well, and said; ‘No, it’s too big, I can’t tell you’.
I knew I was close.
‘What is it? C’mon, I have heard everything and seen everything in my career. I have worked in a prison, for fuck’s sakes. Just tell me, Amy, please, what’s wrong?’
‘No, I can’t, it’s too big’
‘What is it?’ and then, the push: ‘Are you a boy?’
The recognition in her voice was instant. ‘Yes!’
The relief, and the sobs that followed. And she held me and asked me if I still loved her.
What a question! ‘How could I ever stop loving you? You could be a fox, or purple. I don’t care, you’re my baby!’
So then we discussed what we would do next, and I learnt about pronouns, and finally understood the last few years.
Puberty was hard, he suddenly realised that his body was betraying him. He would look in the mirror and see the wrong person. Not the boy he always knew he was, but some voluptuous young woman who was growing breasts, and having periods. Expected to change with the girls at school, he conveniently forgot his gear so he didn’t have to change. The first cuts were to his breasts, and the hatred for his body grew from there. The taunts of “tranny” hurt most of all, because, in his own words, ‘it was true, I was in drag, every day. Having to wear a dress to school, every day’.
She confessed that she was known as Dan by her friends, after the reserve name we had for her, in case she was a boy. And as a middle name, she wanted Lee; in honour of the nickname I had for her “Amylee”. So, Dan Lee.
Daniel.
My boy.
He moved schools, he started binding, he became Dan in private and in public.

It has now been nearly two years since he came out. In that time, he has taught me even more about myself. I have understood that I was trans phobic. But not because I have a problem with trans gender people, but simply because I had no real understanding of what it feels like to be trans. I have understood that people have hatred for things they do not understand, and that my own mother is a giant in her heart. The acceptance has been overwhelming from friends and family, and no formal announcements have ever been made. I am a lot more vocal about the LGBTIQ+ community, and have a much broader understanding of what it is like for Dan and people like him. I have an insight into how he feels, and what he needs. But my love for him has not diminished, it has continued to grow at the rate that I have seen it grow since he was a hairy little baby boy. Because no matter what those genitals said, we still got it wrong. We assigned the wrong gender, because we didn’t know better.
And all those people who are reading this and think I am making allowances that are unnecessary or that this ‘trend that these young people are going through’ will end, I say this: ‘You are entitled to your opinion, but do not dare criticise me or what is happening in my life until you can honestly say you have walked in my shoes. This is my invitation to do so’.
Ask questions, get to know people who are queer. They don’t mind honest questions. Ask them what pronoun to use, what does it feel like to straddle two genders, how are they treated differently now that the world can see their true gender. What is their sexuality? What do they need in order to feel comfortable? Don’t assume you know the answers. And really, everyone is an individual and will need different things.

So here is the end of my story. Last week, I received confirmation that Dan’s new birth certificate was in the mail. One more step in the right direction for him. So when I found it in the letterbox, I woke him up with it: ‘Happy Birthday, Daniel’.
We cried in each other’s arms, as he was born again, my little Dan. A part of my heart keeps the little baby girl I gave birth to, and we display the baby photos. Dan doesn’t mind. He is learning that love has no gender. I hope you all do too. 

Lessons from a blue fish

I cry at the movies. I sob, in fact. I am not one of those quiet criers or those people who pretend they have something in their eye;...